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Immigrants Regroup | The Nation

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Immigrants Regroup

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While standing next to a large wreath of white carnations in front of Ground Zero on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Simeón Yañez was reminded that one can be both an advocate for and a threat to freedom. "Our friends are not recognized," said Yañez, speaking of the undocumented workers who perished in the Twin Towers but have not been counted among the dead. "We're the only ones making sure they're not forgotten."

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Roberto Lovato
Roberto Lovato, a frequent Nation contributor, is a New York-based writer with New America Media.

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As he gazed up at the gigantic Stars and Stripes on a building next to the "Tribute in Light"--two rays of light piercing the dusk-hour clouds from the ground he and thousands of other immigrants helped to clean immediately following 9/11--his contemplation was interrupted by a woman who walked past and said, "F--ing immigrants." The 48-year-old Yañez, who survived death threats from death-squad operatives claiming to defend freedom in wartime El Salvador, kept his cool.

"She's ignorant and doesn't know what she's doing. I have to deal with this a lot," said the brawny, soft-spoken immigrant-rights activist, who organized hundreds of other Long Islanders to join the historic marches earlier this year. Only minutes later, a bald man wearing a corduroy sport coat with a US flag pinned on the lapel pushed through the small crowd of candle-bearing immigrants, many of whom bore flags of their native countries as well as the flag of their new home. As he got to the front, the man yelled, "You should not be here! You're here illegally! You're a threat to our security!" A calm Yañez countered, "We're here to remember our dead, our injured," as he stepped between the man and agitated Ecuadoreans, Dominicans and other men and women standing in front of the wreath. "They should have come through the front door!" screamed the man before being escorted away by nearby Port Authority Police.

Lowering and then shaking his head in disbelief, Yañez said, "Some of us have lived terrorismo here--and in our countries. This hatred only gives us more reason to keep organizing."

This dynamic, of immigrant activism and native backlash, mirrors a larger pattern that has emerged in the past year. While the Republicans (and Democrats) have de-emphasized immigration and re-emphasized national security, immigrants themselves have been not so subtly linked to the terrorist threat. There is little doubt that 2006 will be remembered not only for some of the most massive marches in US history but as the year marking the Al Qaeda-ization of immigrants.

In this context, the Bush Administration's immigration policies have become increasingly militarized. Halliburton/KBR was awarded $385 million in government contracts for the construction of migrant detention centers along the US-Mexico border. The Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security just handed major contracts to Boeing, General Electric and other military-industrial companies for the production of drones, ground-based sensors, virtual fences and other surveillance technology for use in the Arizona desert that were originally designed for war zones like the deserts of Iraq. In May the Administration announced the deployment of 6,000 additional National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border. That same month, and under the radar of most people outside the immigrant community, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, now "the largest arms-bearing branch of the U.S. government, excluding the military," according to a Cato Institute report) along with the FBI carried out hundreds of raids in neighborhoods and workplaces across the country. The ICE's "Operation Return to Sender" program captured more than 8,400 immigrants between late May and August in what DHS officials hail as "the largest operation of its kind in U.S. history." It is no coincidence that this same historical moment has witnessed the passage of the Military Commissions Act, which denies the habeas corpus rights of even legal residents who are suspected of providing "material support" to terrorist groups.

The immigrant-rights movement, meanwhile, has been declared all but dead by the mainstream media. In fact, it is regrouping in response to the national security panic gripping the country. The strategy questions raised by this climate dominated recent meetings in Chicago, Juarez (Mexico), Washington and the National Latino Congreso in Los Angeles, where more than 2,000 leaders gathered in early September. Historians like Eric Foner draw parallels between the national security pressures that shaped (and divided) the civil rights movement during the cold war in the 1950s and the situation facing movimiento leaders at the front end of the war on terror. "The danger is that criticism of American society will be taken as aiding an outside enemy, and that the range of allowable discussion will be sharply narrowed," says Foner. "Another danger is the splintering of a movement as one group turns on another, to prove its patriotism."

Today, as many black leaders did in the 1960s, a number of movimiento leaders attack the politics of national security fear with their ultimate weapons: faith and familia.

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